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The forgotten thesis — II

Abhijit Guha |

Classes in India preceded castes, which, according to Ambedkar were enclosed classes characterised by endogamy. He wrote — “We shall be well advised to recall at the outset that the Hindu society, in common with other societies, was composed of classes and the earliest known are (1) the Brahmins or the priestly class; (2) the Kshatriya, or the military class; (3) the Vaishya, or the merchant class; and (4) the Shudra, or the artisan and menial class. Particular attention has to be paid to the fact that this was essentially a class system, in which individuals, when qualified, could change their class, and therefore classes did change their personnel. At some time in the history of the Hindus, the priestly class socially detached itself from the rest of the people and through a closed-door policy became a caste by itself. The other classes being subject to the law of social division of labour underwent differentiation, some into large, others into very minute, groups

Why did these sub-divisions or classes, industrial, religious or otherwise, become “self-enclosed” or endogamous? Endogamy or the closed-door system was integral to Hindu society, and as it had originated from the Brahmin caste it was whole-heartedly imitated by all the non-Brahmin sub-divisions or classes, who, in their turn, became endogamous castes. It is “the infection of imitation” that influenced all these sub-divisions on their onward march of differentiation and has turned them into castes.

Starting from a fundamental anthropological finding of tribal clan exogamy, Ambedkar had been able to show how caste endogamy was superimposed on the former. Secondly, his exposition of caste as an extreme form of class system as early as 1917 was also exemplary and this work of Ambedkar was never mentioned or referred to by the internationally renowned scholars on caste in India.

In his Economic Weekly article ‘Class and Caste’ published in 1965 (Vol. 17, Issue 35). Nirmal Kumar Bose admitted that caste can be regarded as a form of class in which the Brahminical classes tried to reserve their privileges in society. Bose did not mention that Ambedkar in his seminal paper in the anthropology seminar had already observed this fact nearly 50 years ago. Bose also missed the point that the reservation of privileges in the caste system was ensured through endogamy, a fact observed perceptively by Ambedkar. Bose in fact was highly biased towards the hegemony of the caste system which he tried to profess through his articles on ‘Hindu Method of tribal absorption’ (1941) and ‘Caste in India’ (1951). His idea was first proposed in a paper at the Indian Science Congress in 1941. His theory was based on his short field trips among the Juang tribal community of the Pal Lahara region of Odisha.

The essence of the theory was that the tribals, who had come in contact with their powerful caste Hindu neighbours, gradually lost their own tribal identity and were given a low caste status within the Hindu fold. This idea became very popular and acceptable among the mainstream Indian anthropologists and Bose’s paper turned into a compulsory text in the curriculum of Indian anthropology. There was hardly any review focused on the Juang area to recheck Bose’s proposition and the idea influenced Indian anthropologists for generations. The university and college students of India who studied anthropology were taught the theory of ‘Hindu Method of Tribal Absorption’ as an established sociological fact.

NK Bose published three consecutive papers in 1928, 1929 and 1930 on Juangs in Man in India. These were later reprinted in his book Cultural Anthropology and other essays based on his short fieldwork in Odisha. Unlike the 1941 paper, all these three articles contained some hard ethnographic data and no theoretical formulation was attempted by Bose. After twelve years, he brought back his Juang field data in the famous paper on Hindu method of tribal absorption with a fresh vigour but his exposition in the 1941 paper seemed to lack logical consistency. I will first quote from Bose’s own account and then point out the inconsistencies.

The significant fact is that the Juangs had started worshipping a Hindu goddess, although it was done in their own way. The bath in the morning, the offerings of sun-dried rice, the terms satya, devata, dharma, all prove how strongly Juang religious ceremonies have been influenced by those of the neighbouring Brahminical people. In nearly all respects, the Juangs are a tribe living outside the pale of Hinduism. They have their own language, which belongs to the Mundari group. No Brahmin or Vaishnava priest serves them; and they perform their marriage and funeral customs all by themselves. They eat beef and carrion, and are not considered by the Hindus to be one of the Hindu castes. Yet there is clear indication that Hindu religious ideas penetrated into their culture. The Juangs seem to be losing pride in their own culture and are adopting Hindu culture.

Bose’s thesis was highly selective because he excluded all the non-Hindu customs, viz. eating of the rice balls by the two black cocks and their subsequent sacrifice and prayers made by the Juangs to their supreme indigenous gods in the 1953 paper.

Secondly, again in the 1953 paper he reported that the Juangs were not considered by the Hindus to be ‘one of the Hindu castes’. How then the Juangs were absorbed by the Hindus?

Bose himself admitted that the Juangs maintained their own ethnic identity but he at the same time stated that ‘the Juang seem to be losing pride in their own culture and are adopting Hindu culture with a certain amount of avidity’ which appeared to be contradictory. If the Juangs were worshipping the Hindu goddess ‘in their own way’ and retained their own customs and were not accepted by the caste Hindus to be one of the Hindu castes, then how were the Juangs being absorbed in the Hindu order?

Both Bose and Ambedkar had their own ideas about the origin of caste which were scarcely by western anthropologists and sociologists. While Ambedkar emphasised that the endogamy of caste was superimposed on tribal exogamy, Bose attempted to view caste as a superior socioeconomic system, which could absorb the less powerful tribal society.

Ambedkar’s method seemed to be better-knit theoretically than Bose’s and the former maintained a kind of academic detachment from his painful personal experience while presenting the seminar paper on caste at Columbia University. Bose on the other hand seemed to be less consistent methodologically and had certain simplistic biases which ultimately led him to ignore his own empirical findings. It is time that the original contributions of Dr BR Ambedkar are recognized in the pedagogy of the social sciences in India to pay proper tribute to this great man on his 125th birth anniversary.